Colours of Wildlife: Helmeted Guineafowl

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Helmeted Guineafowl

Willem is a wildlife artist based in South Africa. He says "My aim is simply to express the beauty and wonder that is in Nature, and to heighten people's appreciation of plants, animals and the wilderness. Not everything I paint is African! Though I've never been there, I'm also fascinated by Asia and I've done paintings of Asian rhinos and birds as well. I may in future do some of European, Australian and American species too. I'm fascinated by wild things from all over the world! I mainly paint in watercolours. . . but actually many media including 'digital' paintings with the computer!"

Guineafowl by Willem

Today you have a quintessentially African bird – a Helmeted Guineafowl, Numida meleagris! These are quite common over here and even taken for granted. Yet, they're remarkable and beautiful birds. This species occurs all over sub-Saharan Africa except in the Sahara Desert, the Horn of Africa (where it's replaced by the larger Vulturine Guineafowl), and the equatorial rainforest belt (where three other guineafowl species occur). It also occurs in Morocco, and on Madagascar (where it was likely introduced by humans) and the nearby islands of the Comores. The scientific name recalls Numidia, which is what the Romans called a part of North Africa, and 'meleagris' is what the Romans called them – and strangely enough is also the given scientific name for the turkey (which comes from the Americas and not Africa or Turkey, and was scientifically named long after the time of the Romans).

Guineafowl were domesticated probably by the Greeks and Romans, a few centuries before Christ, but then died out in domestication with the end of the Empire, having to be re-introduced around the fifteenth century. Although never being as popular as chickens or ducks, they can be seen on some farms in warmer parts of Europe and America, and other warm countries. Domestic guineafowl tend to lose their striking blue and red colours on their heads, and sometimes the spotting on their bodies also; some are white or partly white.

Guineafowl by Willem

But wild guineafowl are the real deal. A number of different sub-species or varieties occur naturally throughout Africa, differing mainly in the shape and size of the casque or 'helmet', and the coloration of the face and wattles. The one I show here is the general form found through most of South Africa. Males and females both have the helmets, wattles and bright blue bare skin. They're about the same size also. Other than these brightly-coloured faces, the main feature of these guineafowl are the thousands of small white spots they have all over their dark grey bodies. Each covert feather on the body has several white spots towards its tip. The coverts of a guineafowl fit together to give its body a voluminous, rounded shape. The flight feathers of its wings also have white bars on black. From a distance, the birds appear grey.

In nature, guineafowl are highly social. They're encountered in small to large flocks. They like open, grassy terrain, where they hunt insects and other invertebrates, as well as seeking fruits and seeds and digging out bulbs, corms and tubers. They're very much like chickens in their feeding and behaviour. They have a general kind of call, a melodious whistle (onomatopoeically the source of the Afrikaans names 'tarentaal' and 'poelpetaat' – yeah, the two don't sound the same at all but then it's always an issue to put bird calls into words) which is especially incessantly heard around the trees in which they roost – which in fact can become a bother if they roost close to where humans sleep. But this call helps advertise the presence of a flock in a particular area, and helps stray members find their way back to the rest. They also have a harsh, rattling 'chuck-chuck-chuck-krrrrrr…' alarm call. This, though grating, is not so bothersome since it's only uttered infrequently.

They're also like chickens in their nesting and breeding. Males chase each other around to establish dominance; the male also chases the female as part of breeding bonding behaviour. The flocks break up as the males and females form couples. The nest is just a scrape amidst tufts of grass or underneath a bush. The female lays six to twelve eggs in this. They're about the size of chicken eggs, and creamy brownish or yellowish. Nests have been found with as many as fifty eggs, but it's thought that in this case, more than one female contributed her eggs to it.

Guineafowl Chick by Willem

While the female incubates, the male watches out for danger. Guineafowl eggs hatch after about 26 days. The chicks, known (not very widely, actually) as 'keets', are very pretty, with dark and light stripes giving them good camouflage in the grass. They're hatched open-eyed and able to walk. They accompany their parents and learn from them what to eat and how to get at it. Like partridges, the chicks learn how to fly quite early, at the age of two weeks. They remain for several months with their parents, who will defend them against predators. Here you see an orphan guineafowl chick raised by my friend Gigi Gottwald – first young, and then a bit older, being hand-fed some tasty mealworms.

The guineafowl family only occurs in Africa, and numbers six species and a few additional forms/sub-species of these. All of them have bare heads and faces, some with wattles and/or feathery crests. While the helmeted and vulturine guineafowl occur in open regions, the others are secretive forest dwellers. Two species are very rare.

Helmeted guineafowl, however, are not endangered. They've benefited from human activity – not only domestication, but also agriculture, since they often feed in fields. Farmers tolerate them since they eat many insect pests. They're hunted on a small scale. As in the African Wild Cat, there is also a problem with domestic guineafowl 'contaminating' wild populations with their genes. Since domestic guineafowl are bred with qualities that appeal to humans rather than helping the birds survive in the wild, this can cause problems for wild populations. Domestic guinea-hens for instance seem to be not nearly as good parents as the wild ones. Fortunately, this 'genetic contamination' only happens on a very small scale, and 'bad' genes are rapidly bred out of a population.

Guineafowl Eating Mealworms by Willem

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